U.S. President Donald Trump was widely rebuked on Saturday after telling reporters he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's claims that the Russian government did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—despite conclusions from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russians tried to influence the election to favor Trump.
After Trump's comments started making headlines Saturday morning, the Kremlin denied that the two leaders had even discussed the election allegations during their brief weekend meetings about Syria and ISIS, which took place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam.
After leaving the summit on Saturday, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One: "He said he didn't meddle—I asked him again," referring to his meetings with Putin. "You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election."
"Every time he sees me he says 'I didn't do that,' and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," Trump added, emphasizing to reporters that he hopes improve the United States' relations with Russian government, and suggesting the allegations could be a barrier to that. "I think he is very insulted by it," Trump said, "which is not a good thing for our country."
Trump also dismissed conclusions by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government interfered with the election, sharply criticizing former CIA director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, and James B. Comey, the former FBI director Trump fired.
"I mean, give me a break—they're political hacks," Trump said, reportedly calling the allegations an "artificial Democratic hit job."
In a surprising rebuff of the president's claims, the CIA said on Saturday that Trump-appointed agency director Mike Pompeo stands by the intelligence community's initial conclusions.
"The director stands by and has always stood by the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment entitled: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections," the CIA said in a statement. "The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed."
The president's comments come shortly after special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government heated up late last month, with a first round of federal charges filed against various campaign staffers.
Trump's statements elicited frustration, condemnation, and even some sarcasm, with Atlantic writer Julia Ioffe remarking, "In my years of reporting on Russia, I too have found that if you ask a former KGB agent an accusatory question about his actions, he will generally be straight with you," referring to Putin's past job with the Soviet Union's main security agency.
In my years of reporting on Russia, I too have found that if you ask a former KGB agent an accusatory question about his actions, he will generally be straight with you. https://t.co/V3L6kAKEDn
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) November 11, 2017
The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington also opted for sarcasm, tweeting:
Well if he said they didn't do it, we have to believe him...https://t.co/aKk8dwqQuZ
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) November 11, 2017
Lawmakers, reporters, human rights experts, and other critics also weighed in online:
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) November 11, 2017
America needs a watchdog to defend our democracy, not a lapdog for Putin. https://t.co/3rL9feJNo1
— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) November 11, 2017
CIA chief Mike Pompeo: Putin attacked 2016 election.
DNI Dan Coats: Putin attacked 2016 election.
FBI director Christopher Wray: Putin attacked 2016 election.
NSA head Mike Rogers: Putin attacked 2016 election.
Putin: I did not attack 2016 election.
Trump: I believe Putin.
— David Corn (@DavidCornDC) November 11, 2017
6. So either Trump really believes that Putin is trustworthy on this topic or Putin has him over a barrel or both. None of it is good for America. https://t.co/tfvomFWcDz
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) November 11, 2017
If Trump believes Putin, I suppose it’s for the best that no one believes Trump.
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) November 11, 2017